Three perspectives on downtown loitering
Public safety and equality for all
By CAPT. DENNIS A. MARKS
In the past few years, people have expressed growing concern about the individuals congregating, loitering or camping in downtown McMinnville. The number of calls and complaints about these activities area has increased. Some complaints have involved criminal activity — others on undesirable but legal activities.
The McMinnville Police Department has acted as a key partner with the McMinnville Downtown Association, individual businesses and other community groups by enforcing regulations that help protect the positive development of the downtown area. We regularly assist with planning and provide increased staffing for Turkey Rama and other downtown events.
As members and protectors of this community, officers have a vested interest in making sure McMinnville is as safe and welcoming as possible. We and our families participate in many facets of this community, including enjoyment of the beauty of the downtown area and the events held there.
Downtown McMinnville is a central part of our community, charming and friendly.
Restaurants and other businesses work with one another and with the larger community to welcome visitors and serve local residents.
From a law enforcement perspective, the loitering situation creates a dilemma for officers. Our mission requires us to assist in maintaining the peace and safety of the downtown area while still treating all people with dignity and respect. We understand each complainant’s concerns about business interference, safety risks and cleanliness. We also understand the desire and need for all citizens to be allowed their constitutional freedoms and be treated as accepted members of society, regardless of their personal situations.
Because of our responsibilities to both the community and the individual, we deal with complaints regarding loitering or other misconduct within the scope of whether there is any criminal activity, such as littering, drug use or drinking in public. In many non-criminal cases, we have met with both sides to facilitate a short-term solution.
A portion of the Oregon Criminal Justice Code of Ethics states “My fundamental duty is to serve humankind, to safeguard lives and property, to protect … the weak against oppression and intimidation, the peaceful against violence or disorder, and to respect the Constitutional rights of all people to liberty, equality, and justice.” Consistent with these principles, we will not take sides in our treatment of any group or individual.
We ask citizens to promptly report any criminal activity they observe in the downtown area, as well as in any other part of our community. Officers will strive to take as much action as the law and our resources allow. We will continue trying to find acceptable mediation solutions for non-criminal incidents.
A recent meeting of the McMinnville Downtown Association and other interested individuals has planted the seed of a community-wide task force to discuss both downtown improvements and positive solutions to the homelessness and economic issues underlying the loitering complaints.
McMinnville Police Department supports and encourages the development of this task force to provide the opportunity for a community-wide discussion involving social service agencies, local government, downtown merchants, citizens and other stakeholders.
This group should develop a balanced, reasonable, long-term solution to improve the safety and tranquility of the downtown area while also giving our homeless citizens the opportunity to receive assistance and improve their situations.
Guest writer Dennis A. Marks is a captain with the McMinnville Police Department, where he has worked since 1991. He grew up in Yamhill County and has lived near McMinnville for 22 years. He has served as a handler for police dogs and oversees the K-9 program among other responsibilities.
Missing the real social issues
By STEVEN PERKINS
A task force created to address situations in downtown McMinnville should begin by understanding that homelessness is the result of a bigger social problem and that loitering does not always lead to a rise in vandalism.
These are real social issues.
Since the housing crisis of 2008, the increasingly desperate financial plight of many has become apparent locally. Many already understood what it meant to be without shelter and security, but many more have been thrust into this lifestyle.
People have no desire to live at the bottom of our social structure. We should not be pointing fingers at victims rather than addressing the issues creating the recent wave of homelessness.
These reasons include a failing economy, outsourcing or offshoring of jobs, and too many jobs not paying a living wage. Many struggle to pay bills even when employed full time.
We all have a role to play in fighting for the end of these social problems. They won’t be ended by meetings to discuss ways to remove the homeless or loitering youth from downtown McMinnville. Where would they go?
Business owners will feel better about attracting customers with less smoke in the air or fewer curses overheard, but that doesn’t mean more customers will spend money downtown.
Yet removal seems to be the main focus.
Unsavory, menacing or intimidating individuals may not be homeless. In fact, many homeless people also are intimidated by those not facing the same struggles. They may be alone, feeling utterly hopeless because of the “homeless” label.
Where are complaints and opinions from customers about the people they come into contact with downtown? These are situations that should not be decided only by business owners driven by a desire to increase or protect earnings.
A stronger police presence in the downtown may be a solution in removing some individuals, but how attractive will this be to tourists? Perhaps, as an unintended consequence, tourism would fall off. A heavier police presence may even cause locals to view downtown as unwelcoming.
This may be a moot point, since McMinnville police indicate that lack of funding prevents an increase in downtown patrols anyway.
As for a patrol force organized and funded by business to deter loitering of youth or homeless people, that’s scary!
How would they identify who is homeless or who is loitering? What will be considered menacing behavior, and how will they decide what is intimidating? If police cannot provide adequate protection from harassment or other downtown problems, how will citizens do that? Would a citizen group actually harass and oppress youth and homeless people?
We have to identify the problem if we are going to reach solutions, and homelessness or groups of teens are simply results of the real problem.
Lack of employment opportunities leave many without work and with free time, so let’s create jobs.
The gutting of vital social service programs leaves people without resources, so let’s vote against legislation that favors corporate profits at the expense of people.
Driving a segment of our society from the community should not be discussed as a solution. We should see that kind of action as creating more hopelessness and discouragement, moving the problem to another community. And when the same thing happens in other communities, another group of homeless people will come here.
We should take some responsibility as a community and as adults for the behavior our youth display. Let’s not pawn their behavior off on some small homeless population as a way to fan the flames or garner community support for an agenda of removing the homeless from our community.
Guest writer Steven Perkins studied sociology and religion at Chemeketa Community College. He keeps busy volunteering with EvolvePDX, a Portland-based NGO, local church groups and the C-Wish warming shelter in McMinnville. Born in Texas, he now lives in McMinnville with his wife, Heather, and four children.
Keep it safe and welcoming
By CASSIE SOLLARS
Downtown McMinnville is known fondly as the community’s living room. The McMinnville Downtown Association, tasked with helping care for “Oregon’s Favorite Main Street,” wants everyone to feel welcome here.
On any given day, one might see families strolling down the sidewalk, couples enjoying the ambiance of a sidewalk café, tourists and locals shopping, kids playing, even canine friends enjoying the fresh air — and that’s just how we like it.
Events like the UFO Festival, Turkey Rama, Brown Bag Concerts and Farmers Market are some community gatherings held downtown. McMinnville City Park at the west end of Third Street offers a library, aquatic center, tennis courts and playground equipment.
Businesses, property owners, the city and volunteers have invested heavily in this economic center, and residents and visitors alike tout its livability. The MDA’s design and beautification budget pays for items such as hanging flower baskets, leaf and litter cleanup, holiday tree lights, bike racks and large Stastny planters.
But sometimes, not all is well downtown, and we’re faced with challenges seen in other communities. Fights break out after bars close, and public and private property has been destroyed. Graffiti appears on walls and windows, and plants and planters are ruined by carelessness or vandalism. Groups of unruly kids or adults congregate outside businesses, some engaging in illegal behavior or using rude, offensive language. We hear reports of public alcohol and drug use, and panhandling has become more prevalent.
It will take continuous effort to address the difficulties in positive, meaningful ways. As our community grows, our transient population does, too. More people sleep in community shelters and live on the streets.
Social service agencies are asked to do much more; churches, soup kitchens and food pantries feed more people in need than ever. This winter’s record homeless count gives all of us pause — do we dig in and help, or do we throw up our hands at these seemingly overwhelming problems?
Chico, Calif., with some of the same issues we have, developed the Clean and Safe Chico program, and we’ve patterned our efforts on theirs.
After a January meeting, MDA helped establish a task force composed of church leaders, social services agencies, business owners, law enforcement and the chamber. Our main goal is to ensure a safe, inviting environment in our downtown while making sure people obtain the services they need.
Here are a few ways you can help:
- Donate money, goods or time to YCAP, Habitat for Humanity, food pantries and homeless shelters. Direct handouts to panhandlers are counterproductive.
- Contact Congressional representatives about funding for job training programs. When people go to work, everybody wins. Ask them to restore cuts made in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.
- Volunteer through spiritual organizations to counsel those desiring faith-based mentoring.
- Work to establish transitional housing shelters providing day centers and overnight accommodations with paths to future independence.
Although MDA is not a social service agency, we are committed to the following.
- Work with police to find funding for a uniformed downtown cadet or goodwill ambassador to help everyone feel safer.
- Offer training to business and property owners on how best to communicate with people loitering in front of storefronts.
- Establish downtown cleanups, whether through the garden club, student groups or businesses.
- Work through the urban renewal process with city council and staff on downtown infrastructure improvements.
No one group or organization can solve these myriad complex social issues, but together we can make a difference in little ways. We want our downtown to be just as vibrant, safe and welcoming as our entire community.
Guest writer Cassie Sollars is manager of the McMinnville Downtown Association. Her prior careers have included accounting, banking, real estate and editorial writing. Gleefully, she now gets to spend her days helping to care for Oregon’s Favorite Main Street.